Blockchain for Property Rights?
Technology savvy experts celebrate the blockchain as the beginning of a new era. They argue the novel technology has the potential to radically change the way we do business. The blockchain technology works by creating permanent, public “ledgers” of all transactions. One database is accessible by all parties concerned and replaces myriad overlapping records.
Start-up companies in many parts of the world are working on blockchain applications for various financial services. Their main customers are banks and insurance companies. Among the advantages of the technology: the data is recorded in a decentralized manner and safe from manipulation or destruction.
To discuss blockchain technology and the scope of using it to strengthen property rights in India, was the objective of an international conference in New Delhi organized by the India Property Rights Alliance and the India Institute in cooperation with the Foundation. “We need to exploit innovative technologies to successfully address the challenges of the future”, said the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s (FNF) Regional Director Dr. Ronald Meinardus. He emphasized that he sees the effort in line with the government’s aspirations under the “Digital India” umbrella.
Property rights are a contentious issue in India. In many parts of the country, land records date back to colonial times, and often land holdings have uncertain ownership. Two thirds of all court cases, the conference participants learned, deal with property disputes.
Lack of legal clarity regarding land ownership threatens the freedom of property and is also a hurdle for economic empowerment. Without land titles, farmers have problems to get loans from the banks; this prevents them from making investments and ultimately escaping poverty.
At the New Delhi conference, experts presented case studies from Dubai, Sweden and Honduras. By far the most advanced in applying blockchain technology in the public administration is Dubai. The government of the Arab Emirate has decreed that by 2020 all government documents and transactions must be recorded on the blockchain. Sweden and Honduras are in the process of embracing or testing the digital technology for land administration.
“Blockchain is a technology and for it to work you need laws. Technology on its own will not work”, said Vishal Batra, Blockchain Solutions Architect at IBM Research Lab, India. In India, property issues are highly complex, speakers said. “What if the data is incorrectly captured? To get clean record, you need clean inputs,” said Sunil Kumar, director of land laws and policy at the advocacy group Landesa.
Before digitization (and application of blockchain technology), myriad disputes over land need to be settled. Land administration is foremost a matter of governance. Sorting this out is a herculean task. It will take time and political will on all sides.
Much work lies ahead for India’s property rights activists!